The Legacy of Tiananmen

This week, on June 4, the world will mark the 25th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in which more than 2000 civilians were killed by their own government simply because they called for democratic reform.  The 1989 events took place before the era of cell phones and email, but stories about the military crackdown and the weeks of peaceful demonstrations that preceded it spread quickly thanks to international media who were on the ground in Beijing.

I was among those watching the stories from Canada. It was an unbelievably exhilarating moment for all of us who were part of the movement for human rights in both China and Tibet.  It was a time when we really could believe – incredibly and against all odds - that the power of the people would overwhelm China’s rigid authoritarian state.  Sadly, after early indications that the government would negotiate with representatives of the protesters, the brutal crackdown came in the dark of night on June 4 followed by weeks of arrests.

It was something that Tibetans had experienced before.  In fact, 1989 was also a watershed year for the Tibetan struggle. On January 28, 1989 the 10th Panchen Lama died in Shigatse under mysterious circumstances just a week after he had criticized Chinese authorities and called for greater self-government in Tibet. On March 5, a small group of Tibetans walked through the streets of Lhasa carrying a Tibetan flag in memory of those who had been killed by police during a protest the previous year.  Police opened fire killing most of the demonstrators but other Tibetans quickly took their places.  Soon the crowd had swelled to an estimated 800 according to foreign tourists who witnessed the events.  By March 7, hundreds of People’s Liberation Army troops had entered Lhasa, imposed a curfew and announced the expulsion of all foreigners from the city.  According to the Associated Press, “387 Lhasa citizens have been killed . . . the majority by bullets . . . 721 were injured, 2,100 have been arrested or detained…”[i]

On March 8, martial law was imposed across Tibet.  The Canada Tibet Committee quickly organized a “walk for freedom” which saw twenty Tibetans and their Canadian supporters walk in frigid March temperatures for four days from Montreal to Ottawa to press the Government of Canada to take action.  The response from the Secretary of State for External Affairs was a statement issued on March 10, 1989 calling on Chinese authorities to “respect basic human rights and freedoms”.  The same day, the Dalai Lama sent an appeal to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping asking him to personally intervene to lift martial law in Tibet and to seek a peaceful solution through negotiation.

Deng did nothing and martial law was still in effect in Tibet when the Tiananmen events took place.  It was no surprise then that Tibetans in Canada rallied in support of their Chinese brothers and sisters.  “We know exactly what the Chinese are going through” said Thubten Samdup, then president of the Canada Tibet Committee and now Representative of the Dalai Lama in Northern and Eastern Europe.  “We’ve seen it happen at home”.[ii]

Tibetans believed and hoped that a successful outcome in Tiananmen Square would be the harbinger of increased freedoms in Tibet.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.  

In October 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for his adherence to the strategy of non-violence and his efforts to promote peace around the world.  At the time it was generally understood that the Nobel Committee wanted to send a message to China in the wake of events that had taken place in both Lhasa and Beijing that year.  In his acceptance speech, His Holiness paid homage to the Tiananmen Square protesters.  “The Chinese students have given me great hope for the future of China and Tibet” he said.[iii]

Today, as we commemorate these events twenty-five years later, we also confront the reality that despite his hopes, the Dalai Lama’s dream of a freer and kinder China has not come to pass.  The Tiananmen legacy has not been one of political opening or increased enjoyment of human rights in China.  Today Nobel Laureate Liu Xiabao remains behind bars because of his outspoken advocacy of democratic reform.  The Government of China maintains a de-facto martial law in Tibet with a series of new controls imposed on freedom of expression, religious activities, language rights, land rights and even on international tourism.  Incredibly, the Government of China continues to detain Tiananmen activists in the lead up to this week’s 25th anniversary, and it has ramped up its anti-Dalai Lama campaign as seen last month when the Prime Minister of Norway, home of the Nobel Prize, refused to meet the Dalai Lama in deference to Chinese pressure.

Western governments that have waged numerous wars in the name of democracy, have sold out those same values to economic interests and continue to give China a pass notwithstanding pro-forma statements of concern issued at strategic moments for the purposes of domestic consumption. No doubt there will be several more such statements this week.

As we remember Tiananmen Square, we honour the memory of those brave young people who challenged authority and stood up to power in Beijing 25 years ago.  There is no doubt in my mind, that the events in Tiananmen Square could have marked the beginning of a triumphant road to democracy in China.  The fact that they did not, and the role that the international community played in that failure is something that only history will judge.  Meanwhile, the well-known Tibetan activist and writer, Lhasang Tsering, perhaps said it best, “We are selling a commodity for which there is no market.  Truth is a commodity with no market”.  How sad. 

 Carole Samdup is the Executive Director of the Canada Tibet Committee


[ii] Protesters express sorrow over Beijing massacre, Montreal Gazette, July 23, 1989

[iii] Official statement of the Dalai Lama in response to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace (CTC Newsletter, Fall 1989, on file)

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